IWD 23 - why Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a game changer for women in tech
Female role models, shared parental leave and men being in the room could make a real difference to gender equality
When Black Panther: Wakanda Forever hit the screens last November, I didn’t have high hopes. Marvel sequels aren’t always up to the standard of the original, and sadly the film was missing its original eponymous star, Chadwick Boseman, who passed away from cancer in 2020 aged just 43.
However, not long into the film, I was completely won over. Not by the storyline or action sequences, but the message it gives loud and clear about women as leaders and tech trailblazers.
There’s the Dora Milaje guard, Wakanda’s women-only special forces led by General Okaye; Queen Ramonda, in charge of the fictional Africa nation after her son T’Challa’s untimely death; Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and resident tech/medical guru; and Riri Williams, a university student with a sideline in ghost-writing coursework papers for tech bros, restoring old cars and building her own flying suit of armour.
What’s particularly notable about the film is that it doesn’t pander to traditional stereotypes or bother trying to explain why its female protagonists feel and act in a certain way. They’re just into tech and science, and brilliant at it.
Shuri is simply the genius behind all of Wakanda’s technology. It’s Shuri that tries to save T’Challa via some biotech DNA wizardry; it’s Shuri that develops new hi-tech suits for the Dora Milaje; and it’s Shuri that Queen Ramonda puts her faith in, knowing that she can deliver for Wakanda.
Then there’s Riri aka Ironheart. Portrayed as an ordinary student in the real world, but one who the guys call when they need someone to cheat for them on their advanced tech papers, and who has managed to build a Vibranium-detecting machine. And nobody acts as though that’s a huge deal or even raises an eyebrow.
(And by the way, none of these women wear skimpy clothes or carry out their hi-tech experiments in a bikini. They’re wearing exactly what any woman in her normal life or workplace would wear: tracksuits, leggings, the occasional knockout dress or suit of armour. Even when Shuri is visiting an underwater kingdom, she’s fully clothed. Instead, it’s the lead male character, Namor, who has to spend the whole film shirtless in a pair of tight hotpants.)
What Blank Panther: Wakanda Forever does so brilliantly is normalise the role that women can play in the tech field. None of the women are depicted as outsiders, somehow different to others of their gender; they simply inhabit multiple roles and show that anything is up for grabs. And even better, they’re Black women, who make up an even smaller portion of the tech industry.
When it comes to attracting more women to tech and moving towards gender equality, the stats highlight the importance of strong female role models. Just 8% of 18–25-year-old women can name a famous woman in tech, a new Samsung Electronics UK study has revealed, compared to 46% that can name a prominent man in the industry.
Having more female role models would add to the appeal of tech for 28% of respondents, while 33% said a higher number of women working in the industry would make it a more attractive career choice.
There has been some progress in this area in the last few years. Deloitte reports that the proportion of women working at large tech companies has grown from 31% to 33%, while in technical roles this has grown from 22% to 25%.
According to research from WomeninTech.co.uk, meanwhile, 61% of women say their organisation is actively working towards gender balance in their workforces. The most popular ways they're doing this is recruiting more women in IT roles, working on the professional development paths of women and introducing flexible working.
However, there is still the need for further and meaningful change around the perception of tech and how women are treated in the sector.
WomeninTech.co.uk found that 76% of women have experienced gender bias or discrimination in the workplace. This represents an increase of 24% from the previous survey. And just 3% of females say a career in technology is their first choice, according to PwC research, while only 16% have had a career in technology suggested to them, compared to 33% of males.
Women working in the industry can see progress, but feel change could come quicker if there was more focus on men’s involvement in diversity programs and shared parental leave, rather than just targeting women.
Men need to be in the room
Lisanne de Groot, Software Engineer at Bloomberg, joined the tech sector in 2020, after being required to take a computer science class as part of her chemistry studies. She notes:
For me, the problem-solving element of engineering is fascinating and this is what I came to love. It’s a bit like a logic puzzle but also involves collaborating with different teams and functions and this has always been a key focus for what I wanted when I joined the world of work.
Over the last few years, the technology and engineering sectors are becoming more willing to value the experiences of women in tech, according to de Groot. She sees this in action with all the women’s community groups that have been established in companies and universities, providing spaces for women to meet and support each other in an industry that comprises predominantly men.
These communities are also getting more support and funding from the wider business which shows that organizations in the tech and engineering sector care and want to do better – certainly a positive message for me to see and be part of every day.
However, she wishes the industry held itself more accountable to improve the experience for women (and indeed, any marginalised group). An annual panel about women in tech isn’t helpful unless those who don’t know of that experience are in the room actively listening – they’re the ones who need to be engaged through these initiatives and equality programs. de Groot adds:
We focus on teaching women how to evolve themselves to succeed in tech, but tangible change starts with allies looking at themselves and recognising the ways in which they can grow and better support the women in their industry. Over the coming year I would love to see more education from the sector about what men can change about their behaviour to make the industry more welcoming and inclusive for others.
Mei-Len Vorkel spent more than 10 years as cabin crew for an international airline, but decided it was time for a career change during the pandemic. She’s now enrolled on a data analysis apprenticeship scheme at recycling and waste specialist Veolia.
Vorkel was particularly interested in Veolia as her work there has a purpose beyond the ordinary. She says:
The data I collect and transform is helping to contribute to ecological transformation and a better world for us all.
One of the main reasons Vorkel decided to come back into the technology industry and join Veolia in particular was the opportunity for an apprenticeship. She also believes that as more women are entering the technology sector, this will encourage others to take that leap - if they have the skills and knowledge to do so. This will be boosted by more school children not only being encouraged to learn more about technology, but specific areas such as coding being implemented into the curriculum.
Diversity on show
Michelle DeBella, Chief Financial Officer at open directory platform JumpCloud, has worked in several founder-led companies and is always a little sceptical of joining companies or boards when she doesn’t see diversity represented. Her experience is that founders who are intentional about surrounding themselves with diverse leadership teams, including women, are a step ahead of the game:
That means they need to work a little harder, they need to ask their VCs to prioritize diversity when asking for support, and help with board and exec team candidates. They also need to ask their leadership teams to do the same.
DeBella notes that the pandemic helped to level the playing field for women in tech as it moved away from promotion via the water-cooler and opened up access to executives. She has also seen progress around mentorship and sponsorship opportunities:
I didn’t have that many women mentors to choose from, and the ones I did had crafted careers that looked like the careers of men. Now I see women in powerful roles with all different backgrounds and lifestyles, so women can see other women who look and feel like their life experiences.
One thing DeBella would love to see is normalizing parental leave for all genders.
Not all companies give reasonable parental leave for birth and non-birth parents, so women who choose to give birth and/or raise children will always feel, and potentially be, at a disadvantage. Let’s build company and work cultures that recognize this is a normal life event that shouldn’t impact anyone’s long-term career opportunities or growth and recognize that caring for families is everyone’s responsibility.”
The battle for gender equality continues. Wakanda Forever!